Fire investigators hunched under a scorched, 20-foot-tall oak tree off Angeles Crest Highway on Wednesday afternoon, using wire mesh sifters to search through the ash in an attempt to determine whether the largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history was deliberately set.
The intensified search for the cause of the Station fire came as the blaze pushed southeast to the mountains high above Pasadena, Sierra Madre and Monrovia and hand crews battled rugged terrain as they tried to protect well-known campgrounds, trails, recreation areas and the Stony Ridge Observatory.
"The area that's of the most concern is the southeast corner of the fire," said Capt. Mike Dietrich, an incident commander with the U.S. Forest Service. "That's our No. 1 priority for the next several days, keeping the fire up and away from the communities."
Containment of the roughly 150,000-acre fire inched up from 22% to 28% Wednesday, and most evacuation orders have been lifted. But for investigators, the focus was on where the fire first broke out above La Canada Flintridge.
Near Mile Marker 29, authorities were treating the wildfire's suspected ignition site as a crime scene. Yellow tape cordoned off the area and authorities blocked the highway, turning away even Caltrans workers and earth movers. Members of the bomb squad also arrived at the scene, but officials declined to say what their role was in the probe.
"We believe it is the point of origin," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mike McCormick. "They are doing a finely detailed, serious, serious search and investigation. We lost two firefighters in this."
At a news conference Wednesday evening at the Station fire command center, fire officials were circumspect, saying only that they had not determined the cause of the blaze. They said, however, that they were not aware of any lightning in the area, eliminating one possible nonhuman explanation.
The fire had claimed 64 homes, three commercial buildings and 49 outbuildings and cost more than $27 million to fight by Wednesday night.
Despite hard slogging on the fire lines, firefighters claimed some victories Wednesday. The vast majority of evacuated homeowners, including those in areas of Acton, Sunland, Tujunga, La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge, have been allowed to return home.
The threat to the historic observatory and crucial TV and radio transmission towers atop Mt. Wilson had also lessened after intense brush-clearing and back-burning efforts. Two blazes that had threatened Oak Glen and Yucaipa in San Bernardino County were also closer to reaching full containment.
In La Canada Flintridge, where residents had settled back in, the sign in the front yard of one Ocean View Boulevard home said it all: "Thank you for saving Paradise Valley."
At one end of the street, Lillian Guarino's daughter and two granddaughters washed the soot off the backyard patio furniture. Guarino, 89, said she wanted everything clean before she brought her two dogs, cat and cockatiel back home.
The longtime resident had survived another large fire that swept through the area in the 1970s.
"Yeah, we were very fortunate," she said. "This is the second fire we've had to go through. And hopefully this is the last one."
Skeet McAuley ignored the evacuation order to protect his Paradise Valley home and witnessed firsthand the firefighters' bravery.
When he awoke early Sunday morning, he thought it was daytime because so much light shone into his room. Then he realized it was fire from the slope right behind his house. When he peered outside, he spotted the firefighters' silhouettes, not 50 feet from his backyard fence.
"The firemen are my heroes, McAuley said. "They saved me, they saved my house."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the fire area Wednesday and dished out both praise and ample helpings of hot cereal.
"I hope it really makes you strong," he told one fireman.
For all the successes, officials were quick to point out that the fire remained out of control on its eastern flank. Because of smoky conditions, officials could not fly fixed-wing aircraft into the southeastern area of the fire, relying instead on helicopters and ground crews to save portions of Santa Anita Canyon, Chantry Flats, Devil's Canyon, Sturtevant Camp and other areas.
At the entrance of Santa Anita Canyon on Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Forest Service firefighters Chad Nagasawa and Bart Barreto were preparing to head into the canyon to monitor the fire and its direction. They said hand crews would try to direct the fire away from the foothill communities.
U.S. Forest Service officials said fire prevention work began at the canyon five days ago, with the evacuation of two homes in the area and all of the 80 antique cabins nestled along the Chantry Flats Trail. The cabins were built in the mid-1800s and are rented out to hikers.
Officials said fire crews have already cleared brush around those structures and set up hoses and laid sprinklers on rooftops to keep them wet.